The BBC recently featured an interesting essay on an exhibit at the British Museum called “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation”. It spans over 60,000 years of indigenous history in Australia. Once the show closes in August, the exhibit will travel to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The essay discusses the role of the museum, indigenous art and how a museum and an indigenous community can work together to create a narrative that respects all sides and fosters education and understanding. You can read the essay here.
Over the years, there have been calls by the indigenous people of Australia for a return of their cultural heritage. What makes this case rather unique, is that unlike calls by Greece, Turkey or Italy, this is not a call by a national government, but a group of communities who see the objects in this exhibit as part of their culture. Further complicating the issue is that while examples of Greek, Turkish or Italian (Roman) culture are labeled as cultural heritage or other terms that recognize the cultural aspect of these items, items created by indigenous peoples are frequently labeled as “natural history”. Despite widespread attempts to change this designation, it is still used too frequently to describe the contributions made by indigenous peoples.
The National Museum of Australia has an excellent opportunity to talk to the indigenous people of Australia and open a dialog about indigenous art and its place in understanding the history and culture of Australia. And perhaps that dialog can serve as a model for other museums and indigenous people around the world.